In order to establish the right to vote for women in the United States in 1920, the suffrage movement required 36 of the 48 states to ratify the proposed amendment that read, "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." The campaign carried a sense of urgency, because if suffrage was not solidified before the Presidential elections in November, the movement would likely lose urgency and wither on the vine. After Maryland voted to decline ratification in February, West Virginia and Washington both approved the measure, but after Delaware declined in June, the number of states agreeing to ratification remained at 35. The suffrage campaign knew that the last vote would be the most challenging; eight southern states consistently expressed definite objection to suffrage, and attempts in Connecticut and Vermont, while home to strong pro-suffrage lobbies, were both stymied by anti-suffrage Governors who had stated that they would refuse to call the vote to their floors. The fate of the suffrage campaign therefore hung solely on the vote of one lynchpin state: Tennessee.
In order to pass, the referendum needed to be approved by both the Tennessee House and Senate chambers. Governor Albert H. Roberts called the issue to vote, with the session scheduled to convene on August 9th. The suffrage movement already had a structure in place, and to assist the suffragists' actions, National American Woman Suffrage Association President Carrie Chapman Catt arrived on July 17 with only an overnight bag; she ultimately stayed for five weeks. Railroad, corporate, and liquor interests supported the fervent opposition lobby, whose actions intensified, including on several occasions plying the lawmakers with alcohol despite Prohibition. Constituents representing both sides, with the pro- and anti-suffrage activists sporting yellow and red roses respectively, crowded the chamber as the Tennessee Senate ratified the referendum granting women the vote 25-4 on August 13th.
In the five days between the Senate approval and the beginning of the House session, support for the bill eroded quickly as the "Antis" maintained constant pressure on the delegates, including Tennessee House Speaker Seth Walker, who publicly abandoned the pro-suffrage cause. Of the 99 members of the Tennessee House, 96 reported as present for the debates on August 18th, when Speaker Walker, sensing momentum, introduced a motion to table the motion in order to quickly and finally quash the bill. During the vote to table, which Walker and the Antis had expected to succeed, House Representative Banks Turner, a silent man by nature whom the anti-suffrage coalition had largely assumed to be against the motion, surprised the House by voting to let the motion proceed. Upon hearing the result, Speaker Walker descended from his seat and placed his arm around Turner's shoulders, quietly entreating his colleague to reverse his decision. Turner stood firm, and with a final tally tied at 48-48, the motion to table failed.
Amid shouts and chaos, the Speaker immediately proceeded to a full vote, which nearly all in the chamber assumed would go down to defeat along the same 48-48 lines. Mrs. Cattt and the Tennessee Suffragists, still wearing their yellow roses, lined the gallery and hoped for a miracle victory, while opposition supporters, with their red roses pinned to their lapels and dresses, sensed victory in the air. A designated Representative named Overton called for the votes in order, recording each in turn, until he reached the name of Representative Harry T. Burn of McMinn County.
Meanwhile, in the southeastern corner of the state, Phoebe Ensminger Burn, a college-educated farmer's widow, had been following Mrs. Catt's campaign with interest. From her Mouse Creek farmhouse in McMinn County, the woman known as Miss Febb had become increasingly aggravated with news reports of ruthless anti-suffrage tactics. After having seen a local cartoon depicting an old woman using a broom to chase a cartoonishly labelled 'RAT' to join with the word 'IFICATION', she wrote a nine-page long letter to her 24-year-old son Harry, who represented McMinn County in the State House of Representatives. Most of the letter dealt with mundane affairs, but near the end she wrote, "Hurrah and vote for Suffrage and don't keep them in doubt. I noticed Chandler's speech, it was very bitter. I've been watching to see how you stood but have not seen anything yet." Later, she continued, "Write mother every time you have a chance, for I am always looking for a letter when you are away. Don't forget to be a good boy, and help Mrs. 'Thomas Catt' with her 'Rats'. Is she the one that put rat in ratification, Ha! No more from Mama this time. With lots of love, Mama."
Harry Burn's sharp answer of "Aye" hung in the air for a moment before activists on both sides realized its implication. Despite the red rose in his lapel and the largely anti-suffrage sentiments of the people of McMinn County, he heeded the advice of his mother's letter that he carried on that day in the inside pocket of his suit jacket. Banks Turner at first passed, but after a few moments changed his vote to "Aye" as well. Speaker Walker, sensing defeat, registered an "Aye" vote as a Parliamentary maneuver in order to allow later appeals that never materialized. The final vote tally was 50 votes for and 46 votes against, and Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify woman suffrage, ensuring the implementation of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution.
The jubilation in the Capitol building was volcanic. As the New York Times wrote the following day, "The suffragists launched an uproarious demonstration before the clerk announced the vote, for there was no question that they had won. Women screamed frantically. Scores threw their arms around the necks of those nearest them and danced, so far as it was possible to do so, in the mass of humanity. Hundreds of suffrage banners were waved wildly, and many removed the yellow flowers they had been wearing and threw them upward to meet a similar shower from the galleries. There were few tears of joy shed by the suffragists. Some wiped their eyes but, on the whole, they considered it no time for weeping. Their happiness was far beyond that stage."
During the wild excitement, someone handed Harry Burn a yellow rose, which he affixed to his lapel. The Chief Sergeant-at-Arms informed Rep. Burn that he was to remain on the House floor until an escort arrived to ensure his safety, as the Governor had heard threats of violence muttered about. Burn, irritated at the inconvenience, slipped into a side chamber, scurried along a ledge two or three stories above the ground, and re-entered a window to a room which led directly into the building lobby, behind the back of the guard who had been instructed to find and detain him. He then calmly walked out the front door of the building.
The anti-suffrage lobby tried various desperation tactics over the next two days in an effort to disqualify the vote. Several tried to leave the state in an attempt to deny a quorum, but the Tennessee Supreme Court deemed the tactic illegal and the delegates begrudgingly returned. Several levelled an injunction against the Governor in order to prevent him from certifying the bill, which also failed, and Governor Roberts signed the bill on August 24. The Tennessee government then sent a copy by registered mail to Washington DC, which was verified at 4:00 in the morning on August 26 by the US Solicitor General, who had waited up all night for its arrival. US Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby signed the bill at 8:30 in the morning on August 26, 1920, alone in his office except for his own secretary, officially ratifying the 19th Amendment.
Within one year, Connecticut and Vermont also ratified the 19th Amendment. Delaware later ratified in 1923, and in that same year the amendment withstood a challenge in the US Supreme Court. Maryland finally ratified in 1941, but eight southern states withstood ratification until the 1950s or later, with the last being Mississippi in 1984.
Years later, Harry Burn defended his decision. "I had always believed that women had an inherent right to vote. It was a logical attitude from my standpoint. My mother was a college woman, a student of national and international affairs who took an interest in all public issues. She could not vote. Yet the tenant farmers on our farm, some of whom were illiterate, could vote. On that roll call, confronted with the fact that I was going to go on record for time and eternity on the merits of the question, I had to vote for ratification." Despite contradicting his county's widely-held views on the matter, Rep. Burn won a second term in the Tennessee House, and served in state-level politics until his death in 1977.
Links and Sources:
"Tennessee Completes Suffrage Victory; Move to Reconsider is Feared Today; Parties Spur Battle for Women's Votes" in The New York Times, page 1, August 19, 1920.
"The Yellow Rose: Symbol of the Suffrage Movement" by the League of Women Voters of Okaloosa County, retrieved April 13, 2015.
"Niota, Where One Vote Counts" by Mike Steely in The Knoxville Focus, retrieved April 13, 2015.
Victory, How Women Won It, by the National American Woman Suffrage Association, H.W. Wilson Company, New York, 1940.
Century of Struggle: The Woman's Rights Movement in the United States, by Eleanor Flexner and Ellen Fitzpatrick, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1959.
Angels and Amazons: A Hundred Years of American Women, by Inez Haynes Irwin, Doubleday Doran & Company, New York, 1933.
"On Record for Time and Eternity" © 2015 by James Husband.